Pubdate: Mon, 14 June 1999
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 1999 The Washington Post Company
Address: 1150 15th Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20071
Author: Paul Wellstone, David Cole
Note: Paul Wellstone is a Democratic senator from Minnesota. David Cole is a
law professor at Georgetown  University.


We Need To Track The Jailing Of Young Minorities.

Federal law requires states to identify and improve disproportionate
incarceration of members of minority  groups. That law has been in place
since 1992 and has prompted 40 states to develop programs to reduce minority
involvement in the juvenile justice system.

Unfortunately, the requirement is under attack, and the Senate Judiciary
Committee opposes an amendment to the juvenile crime bill that would
preserve it. The resulting Republican juvenile justice bill would repeal the
existing mandate, effectively closing our collective eyes to racial
disparity in juvenile justice.

There is ample evidence of discrimination. Consider:

Minority youth are 33 percent of all youth aged 10 to 17, but 66 percent of
those incarcerated.

Between 1982 and 1991, the height of the war on drugs, arrests of minority
juveniles for drug offenses increased by 78 percent, while arrests of white
juveniles decreased by 34 percent.

The Republican response to these figures is simple: Blacks and some other
minorities commit more crime, and therefore they should be incarcerated more
often. But that doesn't explain the disparities. If that were all that were
going on, one would expect to see relatively consistent figures at each
successive stage of the juvenile justice system. In fact, the disparities
get progressively worse.

African American youth, for example, are 26 percent of arrests but 32
percent of those referred to juvenile court, 41 percent of those detained as
delinquents and 52 percent of those tried as adults.

These disparities match similar figures in the criminal justice system's
treatment of adults. The U.S. Public Health Service estimates that blacks
are 14 percent of the nation's illegal drug users. Yet they are 35 percent
of those arrested for drug possession, 55 percent of those convicted for
drug possession and 74 percent of those
sentenced to prison for drug possession.

If that evidence does not at least raise a question about discrimination, it
is difficult to know what would. Yet the Republican bill discourages even
the collection and assessment of evidence on racial disparities.  Claiming,
against all available evidence, that there is no problem, the Republicans'
bill would keep us ignorant of the problem.

In fact, racial disparities in criminal justice generally are worse today
than they were in 1950, when segregation was legal. Then, African Americans
were 30 percent of the incarcerated population; today they represent more
than half. The Justice Department reports that at current trends, one of
every four black male  babies born today will spend a year or more of his
life in prison. And for every one black man who graduates college each year,
100 are arrested.

If those figures or anything like them applied to the white population, the
politics of criminal and juvenile justice would be different. Instead of
calls for mandatory minimums for "super-predators," trying juveniles as
adults and "three-strikes-and-you're-out" laws, we'd be hearing about the
need to keep kids in school, provide
more community programs and improve job opportunities.

Current law directs states to identify the extent to which disproportionate
minority confinement exists, assess the reasons why it exists and develop
intervention strategies to address the causes. As a result, most states are
making progress on this issue.

The Republican strategy of "see no evil, hear no evil," by contrast, is
self-defeating. By discouraging the collection of information on the
demographics of law enforcement, we exacerbate the already deep racial
divide on this issue.

The House version of the Juvenile Crime bill, passed in the last Congress by
414-16, preserves the federal requirement to address disproportionate
minority confinement. Having just missed in the Senate, we must now call on
members of the House to insist that this protection of minority youth be
kept when House and Senate conferees
meet this month to work out differences between the two bills.

Paul Wellstone is a Democratic senator from Minnesota. David Cole is a law
professor at Georgetown University.

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